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Commonwealth expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.
* Expenditure from 1967-68 to 1994-95
* The proposition that the definition of Aboriginality is too loose
* The proposition that indigenous Australians are receiving more than
their fair share of Commonwealth money
* The proposition that Commonwealth expenditure would be more effective
if most indigenous services were mainstreamed
This paper summarises in prose, table and graph form Commonwealth
expenditure in the area of indigenous affairs from 1967-68 to 1994-95 and
presents arguments for and against three propositions which are often put
in debates over this expenditure.
Expenditure from 1967-68 to 1994-95
Identifiable Commonwealth expenditure in the area of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander (ATSI) Affairs began with the establishment of the Office
of Aboriginal and Affairs soon after the landmark referendum in 1967. It
increased significantly with the creation of the Department of Aboriginal
Affairs (DAA) soon after the Whitlam Government came to office in December
1972. It increased noticeably again in 1985 when the relevant expenditure
by other Commonwealth departments started to be separately identified. In
1990 the DAA was replaced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission (ATSIC) and at about that same time several other specialist
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies started to have their
expenditure separately identified. By 1992/93 total identifiable
Commonwealth expenditure in the area exceeded $1.4 billion. In 1993/94
ATSIC expenditure continued to increase but overall Government expenditure
in the area fell slightly as a result of lower identifiable expenditure by
The table and graph below are based on data presented in various DAA and
ATSIC Annual reports.
Table not available online.
It is important to note the following:
* The main-agency figures include not only loans and grants to
organisations and payments to State and Territory governments, but
also running /administration costs and consequently the ATSIC figures
given here are usually a little higher than those used in the
Government's annual Social Justice for Indigenous Australians.
* As the names of the main agency's areas of activities and of the other
Commonwealth portfolios with relevant expenditure have varied over the
years only general descriptors of these areas and portfolios are used.
For example, main agency 'health' includes substance abuse programs
while main agency 'employment' under ATSIC narrows down to only
Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) figures, leaving some
other employment expenditure under 'other main agency expenditure'.
* Some of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific agencies
which make an appearance on the graph in the 1990s (eg ATSICDC -
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development
Corporation and AIATSIS - the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Studies) had predecessors in the 1980s,
expenditure on which has been included under 'Main agency - other'.
The proposition that the definition of Aboriginality is too loose
Since identifiable expenditure on Aboriginal-specific programs started to
increase rapidly a decade ago, there have been many suggestions that the
Federal Government's administrative definition of Aboriginality was too
loose. Arguments in favour of this proposition include:
* The increase in identifiable expenditure followed, albeit by five
years, the introduction in 1980 of the following administrative
definition: 'An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is a
person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies
as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by
the community in which he (she) lives.' This three-part definition
soon started to enter legislation (eg. Aboriginal Land Claims Act
1983, s 2) and was accepted by the High Court (Mr Justice Deane in
Commonwealth v. Tasmania 1983) as giving meaning to the expression
'Aboriginal race' within s. 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution.
* There are alternatives. For more than sixty years the Commonwealth
used a narrow definition of Aboriginal. As early as 29 August 1901
Attorney-General Alfred Deakin advised that 'half-castes' are not
'aboriginal natives' within the meaning of s 127 of the Constitution.
The opinion was endorsed by Attorney-General Isaac Isaacs in October
1905 and repeated in each Census Report form 1911 to 1966(1).
* The Federal Government's three-part administrative definition of
Aboriginality is out of step with the genealogical definition used in
many pieces of Federal legislation: 'Aboriginal' means a person who is
a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia.'(2)
* The Federal Government has not always been strict in the application
of its 'acceptance' test. Not only have Australian born South Sea
Islanders reportedly received Aboriginal benefits, but the Full
Federal Court found in Attorney-General (Cth) v. State of Queensland,
July 1990, that Aboriginal descent was sufficient grounds for the
Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to inquire into the
death of Darren Wouters, even though the community did not identify
him as Aboriginal nor did he identify himself as Aboriginal.
Arguments against the above proposition include:
* There is no blood test or physical examination which can establish
aboriginality. Scientists long ago recognised 'race' to be a social
construct with no biological basis, that genetic and morphological
variation within the human species is far too small to sub-divide the
species, and that it is much more useful to conceive of the species in
terms of 'populations' suggested by region, culture, caste, religion,
kinship and frequency, not exclusiveness, of genetic traits.(3)
* The definitions based on degrees of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal blood
which were used for decades in State legislation produced capricious
and inconsistent results based, in practice, on nothing more than an
observation of skin colour. Drawing on documented sources, the
historian Peter Read has offered the following conflation:
In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent
was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He
returned to his home on the mission station to find himself
refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to
remove his children but was told he could not because they
were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was
arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the
local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to
enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal.
He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After
the war he could not acquire a passport without permission
because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the
Aborigines Protection Act - and was told that he could no
longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not
an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the
returned Servicemen's Club because he was.(4)
* The three-part definition helps protect individuals from the prejudice
of contemporary society. One of the main findings of a recent study
was that 'mainstream Australians' are very ready to use labels such as
"half-caste" and "1/16th black", to consider "real" indigenous people
as living somewhere else and to see the "white" indigenous person as
manipulating the system.(5)
* In countries such as Canada where the Federal Government was involved
in indigenous affairs from an early date, 19th and early 20th century
categorisations of indigenous people have become entrenched and
present enormous problems for individuals and families.
* The inclusion in the present definition of self-identification fits
well with such definitions as that considered by the UN Working Group
on Indigenous Populations in 1986:
Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which,
having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and
pre-colonial societies..., consider themselves distinct from
other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those
territories.... They form at present non-dominant sectors of
society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit
to future generations their ancestral territories, and their
ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence
as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns,
social institutions and legal systems.(6)
* The three-part nature of the present administrative definition
produces a tighter definition than that which would result from one
based only on descent and indeed, when the Government introduced its
ATSIC Bill in 1988, it was criticised by the Coalition and the
Democrat spokespeople on Aboriginal Affairs for using the broader, and
arguably circular, definition of an Aboriginal person as 'a person of
the Aboriginal race of Australia'.(7)
The proposition that indigenous Australians are receiving more than their
fair share of Commonwealth money
Comments made during the 1996 Federal election campaign prompted much
public debate on the above proposition. Arguments for the proposition
* With only 1.6% of the total Australian population identifying as
indigenous, per capita Commonwealth expenditure on Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people is high and contributing to the spread
of welfare dependency among indigenous people.
* Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific entitlements
appear to have more generous conditions than do their mainstream
equivalents (eg. the parental means test for Abstudy's living
allowance and the eligibility criteria for Abstudy's school/hostel
directed boarding allowance).
Arguments against the above proposition include(9):
* By any socio-economic indicator indigenous Australians are, as a
group, far worse off than non-indigenous Australians. Numerous reports
identify massive unmet need, especially in the area of housing and
infrastructure for remote Aboriginal communities, and, as high as
present expenditure is, it is following decades of neglect and legal
* Less than 10% of the Commonwealth's assistance to indigenous people is
in the form of payments to individuals.
* Nearly a third of Commonwealth wide Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander specific expenditure (and nearly all ATSIC's expenditure)
substitutes to a large measure for expenditure on mainstream
assistance programs (eg. Abstudy for Austudy, Community Employment for
Newstart, Community Housing for housing under the Commonwealth-State
Housing agreement, Aboriginal Legal Aid for general legal aid,
Aboriginal Medical Services for Medicare supported services). A
further 10% is for services which are arguably the responsibility of
other levels of government.
* Indigenous Australians utilise mainstream services and benefits such
as Pharmaceutical Benefits and Aged Care at a much lower rate than
other Australians. In fact, in 1993-94 the sum of mainstream and
specific health expenditure on indigenous people (1.6% of the
population) was only 1.26% of total Commonwealth health
* Most Aboriginal-specific programs are not generous in their
entitlements (eg the Community Development Employment Projects, nearly
one third of ATSIC's budget, offer working participants the equivalent
of or less than a Jobsearch allowance).
The proposition that Commonwealth expenditure would be more effective if
most indigenous services were mainstreamed
Since the election, allegations of favouritism and financial irregularities
within bodies funded by ATSIC (eg the NSW and Victorian Aboriginal Legal
Services), within ATSIC regional councils (eg over housing development
funds) and within the ATSIC board itself (eg over grants and conflict of
interest) have given rise to debate on the above proposition. Arguments in
favour of the proposition include:
* ATSIC's role as a representative political body needs to be separated
from its role as a service provider.
* The delivery of Government service on grounds of Aboriginality not
only generates resentment in the community which does not assist the
people the services are meant to benefit, but it may add to welfare
* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific programs (other than
those concerned specifically with land and culture) could be run
either as such by mainstream specialist agencies (just as the
Department of Education has administered Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander student assistance since 1988 and the Department of Health
has had responsibility for Aboriginal Medical Services since 1995) or,
when they substitute for easily accessible mainstream programs, could
be abandoned in favour of the latter.
* In some cases an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific
program (eg CDEP) could become a program open to all Australians.
Arguments against the above proposition include:
* Mainstream agencies lack the cultural sensitivity to deliver services
successfully to indigenous Australians.
* Indigenous control of these services is essential for the advancement
of Aboriginal self-determination and reconciliation.
* The accountability requirements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander organisations are strict compared with those imposed on the
states and territories for their use of relevant Commonwealth money.
* Many problems may be solved by changing, not ATSIC, but the Aboriginal
Councils and Associations Act 1976, presently under review, so that
corporate structures are not forced onto small bodies which are
supplying essential services.
The question for policy makers is how to find a way forward on the service
delivery front given the above arguments and given indigenous peoples'
wider aspirations in the not unrelated areas of human rights, land rights,
constitutional reform and recognition of customary law. It may be that at
many points the best way forward lies somewhere between the opposing
positions characterised above. It may also be that there are entirely
different ways forward.
An alternative to either tightening or loosening the administrative
definition of Aboriginality may be to have no definition. Eligibility for a
benefit or program could be in terms of descent from a traditional owner,
recognition as custodian, health, employment or educational need, language
used etc, depending on the particular purpose of the benefit or program.
An alternative to both the ATSIC and mainstream model of service delivery,
may be regional bloc funding. Such funding might be an extension of
administrative agreements between interested parties, might involve
establishing new statutory regional authorities (along the lines of the
Torres Strait Regional Authority) or might involve setting up new regional
governments (as happened in the Norfolk Island Act 1979).
1. Hanks, Peter: 'A National Aboriginal Policy?', UNSW Law Journal, Vol.
16(1), 1993: 48-49.
2. eg Aboriginal and Torres Strait (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act
1975, Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976,
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and
Communities Self-Management) Act 1978, Aboriginal Development
Commission Act 1980, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay
Territory) Territory Act 1986.
3. eg Bowles, G., The Peoples of Asia, 1977: 2-3.
4. From an as yet unpublished paper presented at the Aboriginal
Citizenship conference at the Australian National University in
5. Report by Brian Sweeney and associates for the Aboriginal
Reconciliation Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and
Cabinet, A New Beginning: Community Attitudes towards Aboriginal
reconciliation, January 1995: i.
6. Cunneen, Chris and Libesman, Terry, Indigenous People and the Law in
Australia, Butterworths' Legal Studies Series, 1995: 238.
7. Gardiner-Garden, J., 'Aboriginality and Aboriginal rights in
Australia', Mabo Papers, Department of the Parliamentary Library,
Parliamentary Research Service Subject Collection No.1, 1994: 43.
8. For the many harder-to-substantiate but widely held beliefs which help
give the above proposition community acceptance, see the report
produced by Brian Sweeney and Associated for the Aboriginal
Reconciliation Branch of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,
A New Beginning: Community Attitudes towards Aboriginal
Reconciliation, January 1996.
9. For more on the issues of substitution and utilisation see
Commonwealth Government paper Social Justice for Indigenous
Australians 1994-95, especially pages 39-41, the 1994 ATSIC
commissioned study entitled 'The Substitution Factor in Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Programs' and the Parliamentary Library's
Research Note No.16, 16 October 1995.
10. Dodson, Michael, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Commissioner, Second Report 1994: 128.
11. eg Pollard, David, 'Ending Aboriginal Poverty', Policy Autumn 1991: 9.
Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1996
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